The found footage style of film-making has largely been a mistake. Few films that employ it do it well and more often than not, it hinders the narrative and annoys the audience. Its shaky and unstable camera-work are a nuisance and the trite, contrived reasons given for its being filmed in the first place almost never work. Rarely, though, we do see it used appropriately. And the cool thing is, if used sparingly and done well, it really does accomplish what it’s supposed to – it makes it feel real.
Such is the case with End Of Watch, the 2012 police drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala, respectively, two LAPD rookies who stumble into something too big to handle. End Of Watch is mostly told via Taylor’s camera. In addition to being a cop, Taylor is also a pre-law student and films his experiences while out on patrol as part of a project for one of his gen-ed classes. It’s mostly told through Taylor’s camera (or cameras; in addition to his handheld, he pins one to his chest and one to his partner’s) but also intermittently through more conventional shots. Writer/director David Ayer doesn’t limit himself to the found footage alone. Ayer freely uses whichever best serves the narrative, interjecting broad views of the city into Taylor’s filmed sequences without explanation. Or shots of one of the cops alone after work that are meant to look like the images of a handheld camera but there’s no logical answer to who’s holding it. Ayer doesn’t bog himself down with these explanations because they aren’t relevant to his story. He uses the found footage where applicable and provides his own shots when needed. And the result it a gripping story so well-told, you forget you’re watching a movie.
The film’s pace adds to the realism as does the natural banter between Gyllenhaal and Pena. Ayer doesn’t rush this story nor does he fill it with death-defying stunts or overly developed bad guys. I know it sounds weird that I’m advocating an under-developed villain here but for a flick like this, it’s necessary. This movie is entirely Taylor and Zavala’s story, the lives of these two cops, and in the real world, we don’t know every bit of background about the “bad guys.” Honestly, cops sometimes get a rap sheet on the guy they’re chasing, if there is one, or maybe they’ve heard some rumors around the neighborhood about them, but they don’t have the guy’s life story with all its fucked-up details. They know a few things – he has a gun, he’s in a gang, she’s on crack, they want to kill me. This is what a cop typically knows when facing a criminal and nothing more. Ayer gives us a few shots of the bad guys in action but very few, just as much as we need and not a minute more. Because he doesn’t want us to be away from our main characters for too long. We see this through their eyes. The effect it creates is that we are Taylor and Zavala, we ride along on patrol, we watch as they find ways to entertain themselves (a cop’s life can be quite boring, at times), as they struggle to stay awake on an overnight shift, as they walk into the house of a missing elderly woman and know immediately that there’s a dead body inside, as they run into a burning house to rescue the small children trapped in their bedrooms, as they face dangers most of us cannot fathom. We live it through them.
Ayer effectively orchestrates this realism but he also knows enough to get out of the way of his characters. He epitomizes the idea that a story is best shown, not told. Taylor and Zavala aren’t perfect nor do they always make the best choices. Like every cop I know, they occasionally overflow with testosterone, with that invincible feeling that accompanies authority. But they are human and they react to stress and danger like any flesh and blood person would. And the bond between these two partners is expertly showcased in those quiet moments that follow a harrowing encounter. Kudos to Ayer for not holding back. It’s rare to see masculine tenderness like this onscreen. After a traumatic and dangerous encounter during which, together, they pull three children from a burning house, Taylor is so shaken, he refuses to allow the fire fighters even to touch him. But his partner, also shaken and hurt, cannot be pushed away. He grabs onto his friend and literally cradles and rocks him until Taylor calms down, creating a moment so real, you almost feel intrusive for watching.
I can’t justify why End of Watch didn’t get more hype from the media. I remember seeing the trailer, thinking it looked good but then didn’t hear much about it. Now it’s available to rent or instantly stream on Netflix and it is well worth your time. For all its realism, it still is a tense police drama, rife with action and violence, but with much more heart than we’re used to seeing from this genre.